I was a bit unlucky in my first encounter with Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels. I devoured Fantasy novels as a young teenager and when I found her Earthsea novels which were both highly recommended and written by a woman I was eager to try them. Unfortunately I must have been a bit too young because much of it went above my head and I found them rather boring. Since then Le Guin has been on the list of authors I knew deserved another chance but which I kept avoiding. At least until now, tempted by a beautiful cover I finally read The Left Hand of Darkness and can now see for my self why she is such a well-respected author.
The Left Hand of Darkness is both a real SF classic and a feminist classic. It takes place on a planet where the population spend most of their time in an androgynous state. Only a few days a month do they switch into a men/women, male/female state, and not necessarily the same from one month to the next. The novel discuss how the lack of permanent genders influence the society and relations on the planet but the focus is on the outsider on the planet, the Earth man Genly Ai, who has come to planet to open up trade. Although the planet’s inhabitants obviously find their way of living completely normal (and instead find Genly Ai weird) Genly Ai clearly struggles with the androgynous society. Instead of actually seeing the people he meets as individuals he keeps trying to fit them into into the gender roles he knows and keeps getting confused when they won’t fit nicely in them.
The androgynous society and Genly Ai’s struggles to understand it are two of the main themes of the novel but there is much more to it. Indeed the world building is impressive also in other aspects, the characters are interesting and the plot, especially in the later part, thrilling. For me personally the setting, on a planet deep in an ice-age, was also a great bonus but then I do love an Arctic setting.
Too often when I read Fantasy or SF I feel that the author hasn’t used the full power of the genre. There may be a few cool gimmicks but largely the worlds drawn mirror our own. Not so with The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin fully uses the SF genre’s capacity for what if-scenarios. What if the world had no fixed genders? How might the society work? How would such a world appear to us? What does our fixation with genders really say about us? Could things work differently?
A few concepts may be less controversial today, in Swedish the recent introduction of a gender-neutral pronoun would for example have solved at least one of the protagonist’s issues, but it remains a thought-provoking novel also today, almost 50 years after its first publication (in 1969).